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“You did me a favor, and I intend to repay that,” Wen Ruohan said, adjusting one of his gauntlets in irritation – more at the fact that he was sinking back into that old nervous tic, a tell that he’d thought he’d eliminated years ago than at the actual request, ridiculous as it was. “But to confirm, you’re certain that this is what you want? It’s not in my nature to stop midway, so if you have any hesitations, exercise them now or not at all.”

The two rogue cultivators looked at each other and after a few moments of clear silent communication and struggle, they looked back at him and nodded. The man did so reluctantly - Wen Ruohan looked at his wife, the immortal mountain’s disciple, and her nod was far more firm.

“Very well,” he said, lips twisting in distaste. He hated owing people favors, especially when they rejected his preferred counter-offer to graciously allow them to work for his sect, but he wasn’t yet so ungracious that he wouldn’t live up to something he had to do. “We are therefore agreed: in the event both of you die prematurely, I will take your son into my sect to be raised therein, rather than allow him to be raised alone outside or in the Jiang sect."

He paused, frowning. "To be clear, however, I am not going to raise him myself! He’ll be brought up among one of the branch families.”

Dafan Wen had some kids around the same age, didn’t they? That was pretty out of the way. With luck, he could avoid having to see the brat at all…and that was all assuming that these two died, of course. Still, based on their level of certainty and the association of the immortal mountain with divination, Wen Ruohan was going to assume a worst-case scenario was likely to occur.

“That’s fine,” the man said, his voice oddly sarcastic. “We don’t expect you to do more for us than you do for your own children.”

That pricked at Wen Ruohan’s pride, since he didn’t have a conscience to be affected.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked with a frown. He had two sons of his own, and they were being raised perfectly well by his wives, as far as he knew. It wasn’t really his concern until they were old enough to actually start getting started in cultivation, swordsmanship, or even the scholarly arts, at which point he would naturally take over their education with the assistance of many able tutors – he was far too busy to waste time with them, squalling brats that they undoubtedly were, until then.

“Nothing,” the woman said, and she looked amused – he almost suspected she was amused at his expense. “After all, with hard work, even the sharpest sword can be ground down into a needle.”

That wasn’t how that idiom went at all, but Wen Ruohan was too lazy to correct her.

Later, though, after they’d left, her words kept pricking at him in the same matter as idiomatic needle – it occurred to him that he didn’t much like his wives, even though the connections they’d brought to his sect were exceedingly beneficial.  It was said that where there was a father, there was a son, the two invariably resembling each other, and he’d assumed that that would be the case here…but on the other hand, if he left all the initial raising of his sons to those wives he didn’t like, wasn’t he risking them raising the children to be just like them instead of him? Grinding down his sons’ edges, so to speak?

That would be utterly unacceptable.

He was so busy, though. Beyond his own cultivation, his sect now controlled over a third of the cultivation world, and he was ambitious to raise that to half, and then perhaps even further. How could he waste time on something as pointless as taking care of small children?

On the other hand, he supposed that in the long run he’d actually be saving time if he at least made sure they were raised up right. After all, he’d always assumed that his two sons would be his right and left hands, his able aides capable of enacting his will, and obviously it would be a disaster to find out later on that they’d been spoiled rotten or rendered stupid....

No, he was sure his arrangement was fine. How much damage could his wives do in just a few years?

…perhaps it wouldn’t be that bad an idea to check in on them.

Just to make sure.

He definitely wasn’t going to raise that stupid Wei boy, though. Favors had limits!

-

“Your accomplishments do you credit,” Wen Ruohan said to Wen Qing, and even meant it the way he didn’t mean most of the things he was forced to say at these stupid discussion conferences.

After all, Wen Qing was of his bloodline, if distantly – Dafan Wen was a branch family – but at any rate, they shared a surname, and it was sheer pleasure watching her put all those other ‘promising’ young masters in their place. Anything that added a sheen of glory to his sect was a good thing.

She saluted deeply, trying to hide the way she was beaming, and Wen Ruohan wondered once again if it was time to bring her back to the Nightless City as his ward instead of leaving her out in the wilderness with the rest of Dafan Wen. To get the sort of medical skills she had at her age showed promise and talent, and he needed people of promise and talent, especially ones with his surname, if he were going to make good on his intention to conquer the cultivation world.

He would’ve brought her back years ago, in fact, except that Sect Leader Nie said that children were fidgety, flighty creatures that were bad at dealing with change and that he’d be better off sending medical texts and tutors to Dafan Wen rather than bring Wen Qing back to the Nightless City over her father’s protests. Normally, Wen Ruohan would have disregarded advice he didn’t like and proceed with his own intentions regardless, but Sect Leader Nie had been helping him deal with his own sons ever since he’d reclaimed them from his wives, who he’d discovered had been ruining them, and it seemed unwise to dispute with him regarding matters of child-rearing at that point. After all, if he wanted Wen Xu to end up as even half the son that it looked like that Nie Mingjue was going to be, he needed the man’s expertise, and that meant making compromises, irritating as it was.

Compromises like not just killing Wen Qing’s father for refusing to hand over his children, despite it being easier to accomplish. Or not killing Sect Leader Nie himself, no matter how irritating the man was, because now his sons loved that old bastard.

(Wen Ruohan had spitefully decided to get back at Sect Leader Nie by spoiling his youngest son, who seemed at first glance to be more like the lazy scholarly type, beyond belief. It seemed to be working very well so far, including in causing Sect Leader Nie no end of frustration at his extremely clever-when-it-came-to-evading-work second son; Wen Ruohan, satisfied, viewed this result as being wholly due to his own efforts.)

“How did you find that talisman you mentioned in your last paper?” he asked Wen Qing lazily. “I hadn’t seen it before. Was it in one of the books I sent, or somewhere else?”

In truth, that had been the most interesting aspect of the presentation from his perspective – he didn’t have either talent or interest in medical cultivation, but he could recognize firepower when he saw it. Just because the talisman worked on disrupting things at a very small level for medical reasons didn’t mean it couldn’t be repurposed for larger things…

“Oh, no, Wei Wuxian invented it,” Wen Qing said. “He used it to blow stuff up until I convinced him to make a smaller version for me.”

“Wei Wuxian?” Wen Ruohan asked, frowning, and then recalled – ah, yes, the Wei boy. His parents had died some five or eight years back, if he recalled correctly, and he’d had to go fetch him pursuant to that old agreement; it had been extremely annoying at the time. He’d been in the middle of a very nasty argument with Sect Leader Nie at the time, the one that had led him to think his most serious thoughts to date of eliminating the man entirely, and then, just as he’d been on the cusp of making a decision, he’d received word of the deaths of Cangse Sanren and her husband Wei Changze.

Naturally, he needed to find and recover their son as he’d promised long ago, which given how unreliable reports of the location of rogue cultivators was naturally became a colossal waste of time, but on the bright side it had at least given him a chance to vent his spleen and get out some of his rage on something other than wringing Sect Leader Nie’s neck. It turned out that Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze had died in some obscure night hunt in Yiling, but figuring that out had all but taken a full-scale canvass of six different territories – and then Sect Leader Jiang, who hadn’t bothered to do anything near the same level of search and had opted to search the various towns individually on his own, as if that would ever work, had tried to leapfrog off the back of his hard work, thinking he could just thank him and take the boy away just like that.

Wen Ruohan had refused, of course – he had the parents’ personal request, and that outweighed Wei Changze having been a former servant of the Jiang sect or Cangse Sanren being possibly a former lover of their sect leader – and it had turned into something of a political mess for a while.

That had been where he’d gotten most of the venting out, actually.

Sect Leader Nie had sided with him in that fight, though, rather viciously, and by the end of it all Wen Ruohan was reminded of why exactly it was that the man was a useful ally to have around. He’d also forgotten what exactly they’d been fighting about, but he wasn’t going to admit that, so he just magnanimously forgave him.  It had all turned out rather all right, and Wen Ruohan had put the boy out of his mind shortly thereafter.

Why would he come up now, all of a sudden?

No, wait, he’d sent him to Dafan Wen, just as he’d planned. And of course Wen Qing was from the main branch of Dafan Wen as well – she would’ve been raised with Wei Wuxian as a little brother.

“How is he doing?” he asked, more out of etiquette than actual interest, but Wen Qing lit up and started talking about how her little shidi was a verifiable genius, and so good with her actual younger brother, and whatnot. Wen Ruohan nodded, pretending he was listening, and cast his eyes around the rest of the discussion conference, looking for a distraction – there was Sect Leader Nie, who was generally good for a laugh, but he was scolding that second son of his for failing one of Lan Qiren’s classes and having to be sent a second time over. Jiang Fengmian was comforting him, telling him that he was sending his son as well this year, and of course Jin Guangshan’s heir was of age as well, and would undoubtedly be going, too…

Hmm.

“If he’s such a genius, he should interact more with his peers,” Wen Ruohan announced. “I’ll recommend him – and that brother of yours, I suppose – for the lecture series at the Cloud Recesses this summer.”

It wouldn’t do to be left, after all.

“You…you will? Really? That’s wonderful! Thank you for the opportunity, Sect Leader Wen! They’ll treasure it! How can we ever repay your kindness –”

“As long as they impress me with their talents,” Wen Ruohan said, already imagining Jiang Fengmian’s constipated expression at seeing his lover’s son that was stolen from his grasp wearing Wen sect colors and, in an ideal world, smearing his own son into the ground with his superlative skill. “That will be repayment enough.”

-

“You need to get laid,” Sect Leader Nie said, and Wen Ruohan was reminded again of why he despised the man and should have killed him years ago. Why hadn’t he done that again? “As a matter of cultivation.”

“You’re joking,” Wen Ruohan said, putting down his bowl of wine and staring at him in disbelief. He hadn’t expected the man to actually be serious. It was rare enough an event, but in fairness to him, he never joked about matters of cultivation. “How does one help the other?”

“It’ll help balance you out.” Sect Leader Nie thought about it. “Or at least let you get out some of that nervous energy that makes you a paranoid megalomaniacal little bitch about eighty percent of the time.”

That sounded a bit more in character.

“If dual cultivation could fix personality problems, Lao Nie, you’d be immortal.”

“Who says I’m not?” Sect Leader Nie asked, teeth bared in a smile. “Only time will tell. Haven’t I already outlived my father?”

Wen Ruohan rolled his eyes. Sect Leader Nie had outlived his father because when he’d started in on a qi deviation like every other member of his blasted family, he, Wen Ruohan, had personally dived into the irritating bastard’s spiritual consciousness and dragged him back out again. It was very much not something that people were supposed to do, being more likely to cause qi deviations in the person doing the rescuing than resulting in an actual rescue, but he’d never cared what people were supposed to do and, really, it would be extremely annoying to have to do without him now that he’d invested all that time and effort and figured out how to get some real use out of him. Anyway, they both seemed to be fine and possibly they were also soul-bonded now - he wasn’t actually sure, Wen Qing always got a weird expression on her face whenever she talked about it, and he usually stopped listening at that point.

He didn’t really care. As long as it didn’t interfere with his plans, what did it mtter?

“Who exactly am I supposed to be dual cultivating with, exactly?” he asked dryly, deciding to address the matter head-on because that was the only way Sect Leader Nie understood things. “Don’t volunteer yourself again. I already told you that I refuse to indulge your ridiculous kink for dangerous people.”

Anymore, anyway.

Sect Leader Nie made a face at him, but Wen Ruohan ignored him. He might’ve fallen for that before the whole spiritual consciousness-soulbond business, but now he knew for sure that it was a kink, so – no.

Not happening.

“You have a kink for things that increase your power, I don’t know why you’re being so judgy about my kink,” the other man grumbled. “And I don’t know, find someone – not another wife, you hate your wives, and anyway they’re much happier with their other lovers.”

“I didn’t pick them because I liked them,” Wen Ruohan pointed out. “I picked them because I wanted to absorb their sects and all the aligned sects associated with them. Which I did.”

“See, this is your problem! You married for power, rather than power, if you get my meaning –”

This was true. If any of his wives could cultivate worth a damn, maybe he’d care more about them. As it was, getting a son on each of them had been an exercise in willpower.

“ – and now you’re too busy pursuing power to fuck anyone else. You really need to get it out of your system. Find someone who can kill you.”

“No one can kill me,” Wen Ruohan said. “I’m the closest thing the cultivation world has to a god. Everyone should bow down and worship me.”

Sect Leader Nie started muttering something about megalomania again, but Wen Ruohan ignored him. It wasn’t a qi deviation talking if it was true.

“I bet we could find someone who could kill you if we tried,” Sect Leader Nie finally said. “And if they’re powerful enough to kill you, they’re probably powerful enough for the dual cultivation to improve your own cultivation, which is all you care about…we should start a war, maybe.”

“A war? Against who? And why?”

Sect Leader Nie frowned thoughtfully, stroking his chin. “The Jin sect?” he suggested, probably because he’d never liked Jin Guangshan. “Or the Jiang sect? Or both, I guess, since they’re allied. They’re next on your take-over list, aren’t they?”

You’re next on my take-over list,” Wen Ruohan said threateningly, except Sect Leader Nie only laughed at him. Which was fair, he supposed, that whole soul-bond thing made the whole conquering business somewhat unnecessary – Qishan Wen and Qinghe Nie were bound together now as thoroughly as if he’d married the man.

Which he hadn’t. And wouldn’t. No matter what stupid snarky comments Sect Leader Nie said about Wen Ruohan treating him as a de facto consort on account of not having devouring his sect whole.

(Which he wasn’t going to do either - his sons still loved the man, and by now they were as thick as thieves with the Nie boys. What was he supposed to do, disappoint them? It’d be the same as disappointing himself, and he wasn’t about to do that.)

“I suppose we could start a war against the Jin and Jiang,” he allowed. His plan had always called for battle eventually, since he knew there was a limit to how many sects he could absorb through political, marital, economic or other means. As long as the other Great Sects stood against him, he’d never be able to achieve total domination – plus, he’d have to continue to suffer through those awful discussion conferences with the boring lectures and the petty politics of it all. Why couldn’t they see that they’d all be better off under his dominion? “I could send Wen Zhuliu –“

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s not how you fight wars honorably, and also because I hate that man’s guts. I can’t believe you gave him your surname.”

Wen Ruohan rolled his eyes yet again. Such petty concerns were beneath him. “If we launch a surprise attack using him assassinate the Jiang sect leaders, thereby bringing down the Lotus Pier, the war will be over sooner,” he pointed out.

“Makes it harder to assimilate them into the Wen sect afterwards, though,” Sect Leader Nie pointed out, and damnit, he had a point. “Not to mention you’re going to want some experienced people policing your waterways when you finally take over…”

Damnit.

“Fine,” Wen Ruohan said. “We’ll declare war the old-fashioned way. Maybe we’ll find someone on the opposite side that can impress me, and then I’ll marry her – or him – and be done with the whole business. Happy now?”

Sect Leader Nie made a maybe-so gesture with his hand. “Anyone who can match you in power can probably kill me,” he said regretfully. “Would you consider sharing –“

“Paws off my hypothetical future consort, you beast. Anyway, aren’t you already pursuing Lan Qiren because he nearly slit your throat with a guqin string once?”

“A man can look!”

-

“Say,” Sect Leader Nie said, staring at the army of fierce corpses currently shambling along to the tune of Wei Wuxian’s flute, advancing inexorably towards their enemies – an entirely new cultivation style that the boy had recently invented. In an effort to impress his benefactor Wen Ruohan, apparently. “Are you sure about the no sharing rule?”

Wen Ruohan stared at the grown man perched on a tree like a demon, wrapped in shadow and crackling with power, eyes glowing as red as the sun-patterns on his clothing, who seemed to want nothing more from the world than to serve it up to Wen Ruohan on a platter.

“Yes,” he said, voice only a little strangled. Maybe Sect Leader Nie had a point about power being a kink for him. “I’m very sure.”